Without trophies, Toronto still thrives

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 September, 2011, 12:00am


There is a palpable buzz that emanates from the ground up in Toronto. Sit in one of the bustling cafes along King Street west and the feeling is contagious. Things are happening in this city and they are happening in ways that most other metropolises in North America can only dream of. Huge chunks of Hollywood's A-list was recently in town for the Toronto International Film Festival, the largest and most prestigious gathering on the continent, and while the paparazzi worked overtime stalking the celluloid heroes, construction crews feverishly plastered the landscape with one tower after another.

Toronto's suddenly dense waterfront could almost rival Hong Kong's, which is entirely apropos considering how much local and mainland money is helping to fuel the building boom. At the foot of this urban lakefront sprawl sit the city's two major sporting venues: the Air Canada Centre and the Rogers Centre. Their presence alongside the plethora of building cranes and multi-million-dollar condos serves to pose a simple question: Is it still possible to be the most vibrant locale in North America when your four main professional teams flat out stink? Only Toronto knows for sure.

The Argonauts have all of two wins in their first 11 games and will miss the Canadian Football League play-offs this year, which is a feat in itself considering six of the league's eight teams make it. Their co-tenants at the Rogers Centre, the Blue Jays, will also miss out on baseball's post-season for the 17th straight year dating back to when they won the second of their consecutive World Series championships. Over those 17 years, the Blue Jays have lapsed into insignificance, beset by poor management and middling attendance.

Fear not, though, because winter is on the way and with it come the Maple Leafs and Raptors at the Air Canada Centre. The Leafs are the most valuable franchise in the National Hockey League and are easily the most popular team in town. Their games have been sold out forever but all the franchise's success appears to be off the ice, as they have not made the play-offs since 2004 and last won the Stanley Cup 44 years ago.

The Raptors joined the National Basketball Association in 1995 and have become noteworthy for being a team to leave, as one star after another has bailed on the town. They won a grand total of 22 games last year while losing 60. If there is an NBA season this year, the Raptors will almost certainly miss the play-offs again and, barring a miracle from the Leafs, that will mean no play-off games of any kind for the city.

When it comes to sports and Toronto, well, man what a great film festival they have. George Clooney and Brad Pitt regularly show up and often voice their love for the town. Neither has ever been heard to say: 'Imagine how hot this city would be if the Blue Jays actually had some decent pitching?'

Toronto is doing just fine, thank you. It refuses to be defined by its floundering teams. So diverse is the lifestyle here that everyone is represented in this multi-ethnic pastiche that forms the core of one of the world's truly international cities. And while ethnic troubles occasionally flare up, the various factions largely co-exist in a most admirable way. It's a charm that often eludes today's NBA stars, many of whom come from the hard inner cities of the US. Their complaints are routine now; every time they play a road game they have to pack their passport and the winters can be particularly harsh. All things considered, you would much rather be in Miami Beach and that was the decision the team's only star player, Chris Bosh, made last season, joining the likes of Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady, who gleefully headed back south years earlier.

The Raptors have now started actively drafting and recruiting European players, who seem to relish Toronto's international lifestyle. So far the results on court have not been promising but at least they have a plan, as opposed to the Blue Jays. Stuck in the same division as the deep-pocketed New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, the Jays have claimed for far too long that it's like playing poker with Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

They do business like they are a small-market club but nothing could be further from the truth. The population of the greater Toronto area is close to six million and when you factor in the rest of the Golden Horseshoe, the area stretching around the northern part of Lake Ontario down through the Niagara region to the US border, there are over eight million people which means that 25 per cent of Canada lives within two hours of Toronto.

Yeah, it's a big deal this Toronto place. The entertainment world and the construction industry certainly know a boomtown when they see it. Property prices are going through the roof. And while the sports world seems to be taking a pass on Toronto, this vibrant and unique city is hardly missing a beat. Truth be told, it's doing better than good.